Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Storytelling in the Odyssey, in addition to delivering the plot to the audience, situates the epic in its proper cultural context. The Odyssey seems very conscious of its predecessor, the Iliad: Odysseus’s wanderings would never have taken place had he not left for Troy; and the Odyssey would make little sense without the Iliad and the knowledge that so many other Greek heroes had to make nostoi, or homeward journeys, of their own. Homer constantly evokes the history of the Odyssey through the stories that his characters tell. Menelaus and Nestor both narrate to Telemachus their wanderings from Troy. Even Helen adds some anecdotes about Odysseus’s cunning during the Trojan War. Phemius, a court minstrel in Ithaca, and Demodocus, a Phaeacian bard, sing of the exploits of the Greek heroes at Troy. In the underworld, Agamemnon tells the story of his murder, while Ajax’s evasion prompts the story of his quarrel with Odysseus. These stories, however, don’t just provide colorful personal histories. Most call out to other stories in Greek mythology, elevating the Odyssey by reminding its audience of the epic’s rich, mythic tradition.
The gods of Greek literature often assume alternate forms to commune with humans. In the Odyssey, Athena appears on earth disguised as everything from a little girl to Odysseus’s friend Mentor to Telemachus. Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea whom Menelaus describes in Book 4, can assume any form, even water and fire, to escape capture. Circe, on the other hand, uses her powers to change others, turning an entire contingent of Odysseus’s crew into pigs with a tap of her wand.
From the first line of the epic, Homer explains that his story is about a “man of twists and turns” (1.1). Quick, clever, and calculating, Odysseus is a natural master of disguise, and the plot of the epic often turns on his deception. By withholding his true identity from the Cyclops and using the alias “Nobody,” for example, Odysseus is able to save himself and his crew. But by revealing his name at the end of this episode, Odysseus ends up being dogged by the god Poseidon. His beggar disguise allows him to infiltrate his palace and set up the final confrontation with the suitors. It also allows Homer to distinguish those who truly love Odysseus—characters like Eurycleia, Penelope, and even his dog, Argos, begin to recognize their beloved king even before he sheds his disguise.
Women are very important figures in the Odyssey, and one of the most prominent roles they fulfill is that of seductress. Circe and Calypso are the most obvious examples of women whose love becomes an obstacle to Odysseus’s return. Homer presents many other women whose irresistible allure threatens to lead men astray. The Sirens enchant Odysseus with their lovely song, and even Penelope, despite all of her contempt for the suitors, seems to be leading them on at times. She uses her feminine wiles to conceal her ruse of undoing, every night, her day’s work on the burial shroud, and even gets the suitors to give her gifts, claiming that she will marry the one who gives her the nicest things. While these women do gain a certain amount of power through their sexual charms, they are ultimately all subject to divine whim, forced to wait and pine for love when it is absent.